The Politics of Propping Up the Wounded – an Open Letter to the International Anti-war Movement
[Writer's Note; In the 10 days since writing this article, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. The world was also informed that Bradley identifies as a woman, Chelsea, and has requested use of feminine pronouns when referring to her. Thus this article has been updated out of respect for this request--however, her name remains as "Bradley" when I'm quoting others.]
Dear Anti-War Movement: We are not Chelsea Manning.
Most of us have said the words. I know, here in Toronto, we just did a photo shoot for 50 people last week, each holding a sign that said just that. We’ve signed petitions, saying we would “proudly” serve a part of her sentence. A few of us have even “blown the whistle”–a physical whistle, that is, to represent a metaphorical whistle–the one that Chelsea courageously blew in order to out the truth. But I am not Chelsea Manning–and neither are any of you.
In a court room statement to the Judge yesterday, Manning said she was sorry–”sorry that my actions hurt people. I am sorry that it hurt the United States.” She goes on to detail that in the time of making her decisions, she was “dealing with a lot of issues–issues that are ongoing and they are continuing to affect me….Unfortunately, I can’t go back and change things.” It is a statement now pin-balling across the halls of social media and the hearts of social justice activists worldwide, as we struggle with the words and their meaning.
The first sober reflection I read was on Facebook, where activist folk singer Ryan Harvey put it this way:
“Blaming his statements simply on his treatment, which is not a baseless claim, takes away Bradley’s agency and ability to self-rationalize, reflect, and come to his own conclusions. Are these skewed by his treatment, and by the punishment he faces? Probably, and surely he knows this too. But perhaps his apology didn’t come off “revolutionary” enough for some, regardless of the fact that his actions were. Perhaps he is not acting as the martyr that some want him to be, or as the revolutionary hero who experiences no fear, human emotion, or reflection. Until you have gone to such lengths to expose such disturbing, embarrassing secrets to the public, and until you have risked the rest of your life for something you felt needed to be done, please don’t make such demeaning, politically-shallow comments about Bradley’s statement. If you turn your back on him now, then what was your “support” ever worth in the first place?”
For me, as a family member and active supporter of combat veterans and war resisters, it smacked of a greater problem–and really crystallized the reality that none of us know the first thing about what it means to be Chelsea Manning.
Spoiler Alert. Forgive Me. #FirstWorldProblem
In Dalton Trumbo’s classic anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun (1939), Joe is the greatest casualty of the Great War. A bomb blast has taken both his arms and his legs–in addition to his vision and hearing. He lacks the ability to speak. He grows accustomed to sensing the presence of others through the vibrations of footsteps felt through the floor to his hospital bed, where he lays day to day, utterly alone.
In the end he learns to communicate with the officers at the hospital by tapping his head on his pillow–Morse code, which gets translated and handed to the Brass. He explodes with movement when they tap on his head: “WHAT –. DO–. YOU–. WANT–.?”
He explains that he wants them to put him in a glass case and tour every town, to show the American people what war does to a man. He explains, in the darkest of words, wanting to bring his message of the truth about war to the next generation:
“Take me along country roads and stop by every farmhouse and every field and ring a dinner gong so that the farmers and their wives and their children and their hired men and women can see me. …Take me into the places where men work and make things… Take me into the schoolhouses all the schoolhouses in the world… Take me into the colleges and universities and academies and convents… Call all the young men together and say here is your brother here is your best friend here you are young men. Take me wherever there are parliaments and diets and congresses and chambers of statesmen. I want to be there when they talk about honor and justice and making the world safe for democracy… I want to be there to remind them I haven’t got a tongue to stick into the cheek I haven’t got either.”
Joe–Trumbo, rather, chose this morbid exhibition, I believe, to leave two things lasting on the reader’s mind. One is the unquestionable reality that a display of a soldier like Joe would turn an entire generation against war. But the second message is that Joe is at wits’ end. His willingness to “display” his obliterated body has come only through the Hell of being able to do absolutely nothing else. It is after months of Joe recoiling in the presence of his nurses, who see him although he cannot see them. It is deeply macabre. Not the least of which because being propped up and put forward is one of the last things a wounded person wants to do.
Here we are, a dozen wars later, and the wounded still go on display. As the wife of a combat veteran, I know that the willingness to participate doesn’t come willingly. My husband left the U.S. army in a time of great personal turmoil. By the time he got to Canada, he had begun the first step to overcoming the trauma, which was to face it. We would have late nights confronting those terrible things together. And soon it became a part of me. Could you believe that, come morning, when the calls came in from anti-war activists pushing—pushing–him to speak at this rally or on this panel, with this news agency next to this banner supporting this cause, that I wanted to say, but couldn’t, “You don’t know the first thing about what these guys are going through.”
I felt the same way in Madison this past weekend, at the Veterans for Peace national convention. I sat at a table with many respectable anti-war veterans and activists, including Scott Olsen of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). At some point during the night, Scott had gone for a walk. I had a hand rest on my shoulder while I was mid-sentence with another person at the table. “Where’s Scott?!”said some man I’d never met. “I don’t know–probably went to the bathroom or something.” Who was this guy? “OK just so long as he’s coming back. Gotta talk about him speaking out–gotta put that guy to work!”
…Excuse me? Through no act of his own, Scott, quite literally, had fame shot in his face by Oakland police during the peak of the Occupy Movement in 2011. It seems to me that he will “get to work” doing whatever he wants to do–when he’s ready to. Not the least of which is his lawsuit against The Oakland Police Department.
Soldiers and veterans are not your trophies. It’s not a malady of one group, or tendency, or generation. It’s a reminder to me that our fight for human rights sometimes lacks humanity.
Chelsea Manning is at the top of this list. She has been seized, imprisoned, caged, tortured, psycho-analyzed and scrutinized from every angle and dimension. Certainly she has been silenced as well as given things to say. I fear that we, the anti-war movement, make grave mistakes to put words into her mouth, or figure out her thinking or thought process for her.
“Manning’s apology” wasn’t a good one for your cameras. Sure. Sometimes life is just a little more complicated than that.
We have perhaps made it feel all too easy to say, “I AM BRADLEY/CHELSEA MANNING” when, in fact, as I held that sign and took my photo last week, felt deep in my heart that No, I don’t know the first fucking thing about what it is to be her, to face the darkness by which she has been swallowed. Today she is on the front line in the fight for her life.
And this is not to discount the tremendous work that is being done by the Manning Support Network, who has used this statement to reach millions. But now it’s time to take our “support” to a higher level of understanding. Surely, letters come in; the pitch of drums and voices of support come through the bars as a prisoner, I know this. But as it stands, Manning’s body is potentially theirs for the next century. This, I cannot fathom.
It is with that said that I ask you to question your thinking. I hope you read this because you disagree with me, and now are considering what information I offer, from my limited perspective. The voices of soldiers are as valuable as they are because their opposition to war is so thoroughly genuine. For many, they can do nothing if not work from their experiences and speak from their hearts. It is for us to support this authenticity–and to remember that the military is a machine whose relationship to its rank and file is definitively exploitative: soldiers get used, chewed up, and spit out. We are doing the greatest disservice if we parrot the same motions in a movement that claims to be the antithesis of a war drive.
I spoke about this during the Veterans for Peace rally toward the tail end of the Madison convention:
“We are Bradley Manning… but I mean that not only in the sense of his heroism but of the great potential that each and every one of us has to make change. Each and every one of us is an organizer. Each and every one of us is a mentor. Each and every one of us is a healer. And I say this especially to the veterans here today, however they choose to use it. We as non-veterans and veterans of past wars need to step back. Give them the space. Give them the space to learn, grow, figure things out on their own, and their truth will burn through the lies. They will light up the skies for the next generation, if you give them that chance.”
It is for us to understand that that chance… is entirely on their terms, or not at all. Manning has already changed the world. The Afghan War Diary gave my husband and other war resister claims traction in the Canadian immigration system, to the extent that some have received new refugee claim hearings on grounds that there is now voluminous third-party evidence of human rights violations at the hands of U.S. military–in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That was Chelsea, and I am indebted to her. I thank her. I salute her. But I do not speak for her.
My job is to support her as long as she is in prison, and until she is free: End of story. Case closed.
And for those looking to display the wounded in their glass cases–to mold them to fit the various fighting positions that you think best suit “the struggle”–not their struggle, but your struggle, “The Struggle”–I urge you ask the simple question of Joe’s command… the words that exemplify how little you really know.
“What do you want?”
What do you, the veteran, the soldier, the resister, the whistle-blower, the wounded… What do you need?
Or are you afraid of what they will say?